The findings of the The Canterbury Health and Development Study, that there may be a correlation between abortion and mental health problems, aren't as momentous as the Dominion Post wants you to think. The abstract of the article is here. There have been a number of studies, including ones that used this sort of methodology, that looked at the connections. This one had a relatively small sample size, comparing 90 women who had had abortions with 410 who had not. Last year the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists did a literature review that examined the link between abortion and mental health problems and came to the following conclusions:
• The overwhelming indication is that legal and voluntary termination of pregnancy rarely causes immediate or lasting negative psychological consequences in healthy women.
• The following factors seem to predict negative psychological outcomes: certain personality traits including impulsivity, attachment, low self esteem and dependency, late gestation abortion, prior psychiatric illness, and conflict with religious or cultural beliefs.
• Overall, the research seems to suggest that greater partner or parental support improves the psychological outcomes for the woman and that having an abortion results in few negative outcomes to the relationship.
• Comprehensive reviews of the adolescent-specific literature have concluded that the effects on younger women are mild and transitory and that other confounding factors may influence negative outcome.
The decision to terminate a pregnancy due to medical or genetic reasons seems to have more of a negative impact often eliciting grief and depression amongst women.
• Some studies have reported positive outcomes such as relief.
This study is entirely consistent with those findings. Why? Because correlation (if correlation exists) does not equal causation. Just because abortion may be linked with mental health problems doesn't mean that it caused those mental health problems. The mental health problems described could make someone more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy, or make it more likely that they'd choose to terminate the pregnancy, or the mental health problems and the abortion (or unplanned pregnancy) could both be caused by something else, like an abusive relationship, or the abortion could cause something (like rejection by anti-abortion nutbars) which cause depression. A simple correlation (particularly in a study this small) doesn't tell us anything about what the relationship between abortion and mental health problems actually is.
I'm arguing the case based on facts but I want to be really clear that even if it was conclusively proved that abortion can cause depression I still absolutely believed abortion should be legal. The only person who can weigh up the risks of giving birth versus the risks of pregnancy is the woman who is pregnant.
There are probably cases where abortion does cause depression, if women are ambiguous about the decision, if they're pressured into it, if they're judged for the decision they make. People can make decisions they regret about abortions, just like they can about everything else, and I really admire Annika Moa for speaking out about her experience. Ken Orr, who is an anti abortionist, apparently believed talking about a woman he knew helped his cause: "I have a friend who cries herself to sleep every night because she can't forgive herself for – as she puts it – killing her baby." That's a really awful situation, I don't know under what circumstances she had an abortion, but I wish that society had provided her with what she needed to continue the pregnancy, if that's the way she felt. But the fact that people regret choices, and feel they made the wrong ones, doesn't mean we should take them away.
Meanwhile SPUC (or whatever they're calling themselves now) are arguing that this shows that 98% of abortions are illegal. As I've written about before New Zealand abortion law is pretty appalling. The law was written by pro-lifers (including David Lange) to try and restrict access to abortion. In order to have an abortion you must have to Certifying Consultants (doctors who have been approved by the Abortion Supervisory Committee not to have views that are contradictory to New Zealand abortion law) say that the abortion will damange your physical or mental health and that this is not just the normal risk of pregnancy (because women should just suck that up). There's one other condition - I think it's that the pregnancy was a result of incest (I know it's not rape because the fuckers voted down an mendment to make rape an automatic ground for abortion, because then women would claim they had been raped to get an abortion, and I will not be happy until I've danced on every single one of those men's grave). Despite this most women who want an abortion can get one, as 98% of abortions are given for the reason that pregnancy would damage the woman's mental health.
Of course SPUC miss most medical points, as well as the ones I've already made, even if abortion does directly cause mental health problems in a significant number of women, forcing women to continue pregnancies they don't want could very easily cause more mental health problems. The only way to find out would be to turn down half the women who wanted abortions and compare the mental health of the two groups, which is obviously not going to happen. I wonder if SPUC would jump aboard that study on the grounds that it would safe half the 'babies'.
But if 98% of abortions are illegal that's an enditement on the law, not on practice. Women shouldn't need to claim that a pregnancy will damage their mental health to get an abortion (although a forced pregnancy would damage my mental health). I have no hope that New Zealand abortion laws will be changed while Labour is relying on the support of Peter Dunne to prop up their government.
NOTE: I've already got a thread where you can discuss the morality of abortion. If you want to discuss the morality of abortion go discuss it in this thread. This thread is to discuss the study. If someone tries to discuss the morality of abortion those posts will be deleted, please do not engage with that argument.
UPDATE: Go and check out Tigtogblog who makes this important point (among others):
The trends do appear to hold, although I see no indication that there was any comparison with women who had continued with unplanned pregnancies, a distinction I would think crucial.Amanda at Pandagon also has a good discussion.